Purdue’s painful NCAA tournament history reaches boiling point of failure in historic loss to Fairleigh Dickinson

Purdue was on the cusp of NCAA Men’s Tournament infamy Friday night when the TV cameras cut to the Boilermakers’ meeting during a timeout.

There was coach Matt Painter scribbling away on a clipboard, desperately trying to diagram a play to score five points in 1.2 seconds.

That moment of futility late in Purdue’s 63-58 loss to 16th-ranked Fairleigh Dickinson is the perfect metaphor for the Boilermakers’ tortured history in March. Painter always seems to be looking in vain for a play that might free Purdue from 43 years of NCAA tournament heartache and heartache.

Since their most recent Final Four appearance in 1980, Purdue has won 10 Big Ten regular season titles, made 31 NCAA tournament appearances, and secured first place four times. None of these teams made it back to the Final Four. Some fell short in the most agonizing ways imaginable.

  • In 1994, a Purdue team led by Glenn Robinson won 29 games, secured first place and advanced to the Elite Eight. Then Robinson suffered a back injury – allegedly fooling around in a hotel room with teammates – and shot a miserable 6-for-22 in a loss to Duke.

  • In 1996, Purdue again won the Big Ten and claimed first place. This time, the Boilermakers narrowly avoided losing to 16th-ranked West Carolina before falling a round later to Georgia.

  • In 2000, Purdue took a few chances and earned a golden opportunity, needing only to defeat eighth-ranked Wisconsin to reach the Final Four. Brian Cardinal and the Boilermakers suffered a late scoring drought and lost 64-60.

  • In 2010, Indianapolis hosted the Final Four and Purdue had a team capable of challenging for the title. Then, in late February, star Robbie Hummel suffered the first of several ACL tears and the Boilermakers were never the same.

  • In 2019, Carsen Edwards put third-ranked Purdue on the back and the Boilermakers beat top-ranked Virginia in the Elite Eight. Only an incredible pass by Kihei Clark and a jump shot by Mamadi Diakite preserved the Cavaliers’ national title hopes.

  • In 2022, a Purdue team featuring future NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey and a pair of talented 7-footers needed only to beat 15th-ranked Saint Peter’s to advance to the Elite Eight. Instead, Doug Edert and the Peacocks added to their legend, coming back from a four-point deficit in the final five minutes.

Some of the close calls and near misses looked unlucky. Purdue’s last NCAA tournament meltdown was self-inflicted.

Fairleigh Dickinson was ranked under 300 by most advanced metrics entering the NCAA Tournament. Their head coach was in charge of a Division II program at this time last year. Its roster is the shortest in all of Division I college basketball.

The Knights haven’t even won the regular season or conference tournament titles in college basketball’s lowest-rated conference this season. Merrimack swept both but was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament during the last year of transition from Division II to Division I.

And yet, when Friday’s game was on the line, it was Fairleigh Dickinson who played big and Purdue who shrank from the moment.

Point guard Heru Bligen and Fairleigh Dickinson were undaunted by center Zach Edey (left) on Friday night. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Fairleigh Dickinson’s strategy in attack was to turn his lack of size into a force opening the ground and attacking the basket. The presence of seven-foot-tall Zach Edey could make Purdue vulnerable against a team that might force it to defend in space, but the Boilermakers did a respectable job, holding the Knights to 38.4% shooting from the field.

Where it all went wrong for Purdue was when he had the ball. Fairleigh Dickinson masked his lack of size on defense by cramming Edey with multiple defenders in an effort to force someone other than College Basketball National Player of the Year to beat them. Edey scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but only attempted one shot in the final 12 minutes of the game.

The freshman backcourt of Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith were the catalysts for Purdue’s rise to No. 1 in the country earlier this season, but their late-season struggles also contributed to the Boilermakers’ vulnerability going into the NCAA Tournament. Loyer and Smith could not get the ball to Edey, nor could they hit the shots that Fairleigh Dickinson dared them to take.

His shooting problems contributed to Purdue going 5-of-26 from behind the arc. Smith also committed seven of Purdue’s 16 turnovers.

After the loss, Painter tried to make sense of it. How could this happen to a team that defeated Duke, Gonzaga, and Marquette out of the conference and captured regular season and Big Ten tournament titles?

“Six years in a row we’ve been a top five finisher,” Painter said. “And that’s all you try to do. You just try to fight to get in the best possible position. And now we’ve landed in the best possible position and this happens. And obviously it hurts. Really hurts.

The knee-jerk reaction is to blame Painter for another March meltdown. Surely there will be many famous artists saying that his teams always fail and that he will never win the NCAA tournament.

The reality is that Purdue would not continue to win Big Ten titles and earn No. 1 seeds without Painter. It’s fair to question whether he needs to reexamine his approach to the NCAA Tournament, but there’s no reason to wreck what he’s built and start over.

Even this year’s team didn’t start the season in the AP Top 25 after sending Ivey to the NBA and losing three other key players. Purdue beat all expectations until the last March disaster on Friday.

There was a time when people said Bill Self couldn’t win in March. Same with Scott Drew and Jay Wright.

Perhaps one day Painter will put an end to that conversation as well. But for at least another year, he’s the head coach of a program that annually raises hopes from November through the end of the Big Ten tournament, only to implode when it matters most.

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